College Sports

‘A guy you want to be around.’ UK freshman has star power on court and off.

UK basketball player Keldon Johnson talks about what drives him to play so hard

University of Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson said his parents are a big influence on his personality and passion for the game.
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University of Kentucky freshman Keldon Johnson said his parents are a big influence on his personality and passion for the game.

One person in the unlikely friendship was a 6-foot-7 star player for prep school powerhouse Oak Hill Academy. He was a five-star darling of basketball recruiting analysts and bound for Kentucky, where he hopes to launch a career in the NBA.

The other person is a 5-foot-4 student manager for the Oak Hill team. He is from Kobe, Japan. He cannot jump high enough to touch the net attached to a basketball goal. His application has been accepted by several West Coast universities, including Southern Cal.

Keldon Johnson is the taller person, Shiryu Kataoka the shorter person.

“Keldon and he were, like, best buds,” Oak Hill Academy Coach Steve Smith said. “Keldon wanted to room with him on road trips. Most players don’t say ‘I want to room with a manager.’”

In terms of outgoing personality, Johnson is not like most players.

“I’ve never really met a stranger,” he said. “I was always willing to talk to anybody.”

Kataoka, who is a senior at Oak Hill this school year, said that a shared sense of humor led to the friendship.

“He’s so friendly, right?” Kataoka said. “So it’s easy to talk to him. I’m actually not scared (of) him, I have to say.”

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Johnson said he continues to speak with Kataoka. “And I definitely think we’ll be lifelong friends,” he said.

During the 2017-18 school year, Kataoka would cook for Johnson. “Oriental noodles every night,” Smith said. “He said he taught him how to make dumplings.”

Johnson said that he inherited his extroverted personality from his father,

“That’s my pops,” he said. “I think we just like to have fun, entertain people and just make the best of the situation given.”

Chris Johnson suggested birth order might be involved. Eldest son Kyle, 24, is “more reserved, more shy,” he said.

Middle son Kaleb, 22, is also unassuming.

“He comes home, you wouldn’t even know he’s in the house,” Chris Johnson said of Kaleb. “But as soon as Keldon hits the door, it’s like a hurricane came into the house. Keldon is just a go-getter.”

During the August trip to the Bahamas, smiling UK players noted Johnson’s habit of trash talking: Opponents in games, teammates in practice.

“He got a little bit of it from his daddy,” Chris Johnson said with a laugh. Backyard competitions with older brothers sharpened Keldon’s verbal skills, the father said.

Keldon Johnson talks trash a lot. He used body language to communicate to Serbia-based opponent. (Photo by Chet White of UK Athletics)

In his one season at Oak Hill, Johnson spent an unusual amount of time in the coaches’ offices. Every day around lunch time he would appear.

“Wanting to know what’s going on,” Smith said. “He was always a little bit nosy. He wanted to know what the coaches were saying about the other players.”

Smith found Johnson charming.

“I told him he was the team prankster,” the Oak Hill coach said. “He didn’t pull pranks that much. It was more if somebody was in a bad mood, if somebody’s not playing well or down in the dumps about something, he was always the guy to pick them up.”

Smith made Johnson one of the team’s two captains last season. Johnson also grew close to the Oak Hill assistant coaches. Johnson and the Oak Hill assistant coaches exchanged trash talk, Smith said. Good naturedly, he added.

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Keldon Johnson averaged 13.3 points and 4.8 rebounds during Kentucky’s four-game trip to the Bahamas. Chet White UK Athletics

“A guy you want to be around off the court,” Smith said. “Some guys at practice, you don’t want to see till the next day. He was not like that. He’s a guy you want to be around all the time because of his personality.”

The weight of playing for Kentucky apparently has not dimmed Johnson’s engaging personality.

“Kenny Payne called me,” Smith said of UK’s associate coach. “He said, ‘Man, that guy is a rascal.’”

Smith suggested that UK fans, media, players and coaches expect more of the same as this season unfolds.

“He’s easily approachable,” the Oak Hill coach said. “He’s probably going to be quotable. He’s got a pretty good wit, pretty good sense of humor. His personality is one where he’s outgoing all the time. You can talk to him about anything.”

About this series

This is the 10th in a series of 13 stories featuring members of the 2018-19 University of Kentucky men’s basketball team. Watch for all 13 in the coming days in the Herald-Leader and on Kentucky.com.

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Keldon Johnson posed with a basketball rim during the Kentucky men’s basketball team photo day. Charles Bertram cbertram@herald-leader.com

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